When a Parrot Doesn't Know the Word for Fire

When a Parrot Doesn't Know the Word for Fire
A wild African Grey Parrot, photographed by Lucy Keith-Diagne in 2008, uploaded to iNaturalist as observation 66464292 under a CC-BY 4.0 license.

Have you heard of Alex the Grey Parrot? He lived with American researcher Irene Pepperberg for 30 years while she taught him to not just mimic words, but to understand their meaning. Many years ago I read two different books by Pepperberg about her time with Alex – Alex and Me, written for a general audience, and The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots which lays out the methods she used in detail.

As I remember, part of the big deal about Alex is that he learned to use language creatively, figuring out ways to say things he hadn't expressly been taught. So I found myself thinking of him when this article showed up in my inbox:

VIDÉO - À Lannilis, Baby le perroquet sauve sa famille d’un incendie - France Bleu
Mieux qu’un détecteur de fumée, adoptez un perroquet ! Baby, un perroquet qui vit chez un couple de Lannilis, dans le Finistère, a alerté d’un début de feu électrique derrière le mur de la cuisine dans la nuit de samedi à dimanche. Ça aurait pu très mal tourner s’il n’avait pas alerté ses maîtres.

Yes, it's in French.* But it's about a Grey Parrot in France named Baby. According to the humans in the house – Virginie and Gilles – six-year-old Baby regularly talks during the day, but always stays quiet through the night. So they figured they'd better get up and see what was going on when they heard Baby coughing and saying "Ouh, c'est chaud! Oh la la, c'est chaud!" at 5 A.M.

Because when you're a parrot who's never learned the word for un incendie, how else do you tell your family there's an electrical fire starting behind the dishwasher then to just keep repeating "oh wow, it's hot"?

There are many stories of dogs and cats and other non-human animals alerting their families to fires and other dangers. What strikes me about Baby's story is his word choice in this instance. To be clear, there weren't flames licking out of the wall. When Gilles and Virginie came downstairs they had to investigate to try to find the source of the strong odour. So it sounds unlikely to me that Baby was actually physically any hotter than usual. But he knew something was very, very wrong, and used the closest word he knew to express that. Unlike Alex, Baby didn't have decades of dedicated language training, but I'm willing to venture that he does live with people who talk to him about things, and for that, he saved their lives.


*The reason I saw Baby's story is that I'm supposedly trying to improve my French, though admittedly it isn't going well. But a hat tip to Anne-Sophie Conover's free newsletter En français avec Anne-Sophie for bringing this and other stories to my inbox every week.